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TIANTAI . The Tiantai tradition of Chinese Māhāyana Buddhism is a lineage centered around the writings of the monk Zhiyi (538597) and his successors. This tradition is characterized by the emphasis it places on the practice of meditation, its exegetical method, and the centrality it accords the teachings of the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra (Chin., Miaofa lianhua jing su ; abbreviated title, Fahua jing ; the Lotus Sutra ) and the Da ban niepan jing (Skt., Mahāyāna-parinirvāa Sūtra ). The Tiantai tradition forms, together with the Huayan tradition, one of the two major academic and doctrinal systems of Chinese Mahāyāna Buddhism.


Zhiyi's major meditation text, the Mohe zhiguan (The Great Stilling and Insight; T. D. no. 1911), states that the Tiantai lineage began with Huiwen, who transmitted the essence of his enlightenment experience to his disciple Huisi, who in turn instructed Zhiyi. Later Tiantai church history therefore refers to these monks as the first three (Chinese) Tiantai "patriarchs."


Other than the fact that he was active during the Northern Qi period (550557), little is known of the life of Huiwen. Even late accounts admit that both his place of birth and his dates are unknown. His importance to the tradition derives from his adumbration of certain key concepts that, in the writings of Zhiyi, would become central to Tiantai thought. One source relates that while reading the Da zhidu lun (a commentary on the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in twenty-five thousand slokas that is traditionally attributed to Nāgārjuna) he was struck by a passage that notes, "When one moment of mind obtains all wisdom, the wisdom of the Path, and all species of wisdom, then all of the defilements and their traces are cut off." This concept of "three wisdoms in one mind" (yxin sanzhi ) became identified in the writings of Zhiyi with his concept of "three insights in one mind" (yxin sanguan ), a core teaching of the Tiantai system.

This link to the teachings of Nāgārjuna, founder of the Mādhyamika system and perhaps the greatest of all Buddhist thinkers, was later formalized by recognizing him as the tradition's first Indian patriarch and the inspirator of the system as a whole. Such post facto linkage with Indian figures of unquestioned authority was a common means of bestowing legitimacy and prestige upon the Buddhist traditions indigenous to China. Nāgārjuna, in fact, is counted as "first patriarch" of several East Asian Buddhist traditions.


The master Huisi was a native of Honan Province; later biographies state that he was born under the Northern Wei on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 515. At the age of fourteen he entered the monastic life and received full ordination, devoting himself to chanting the text of the Fahua jing. At the age of nineteen he had an enlightenment experience while reading the Miaoshengding jing (Sutra of Marvelous, Unsurpassed Samādhi; otherwise unknown); from this time on he retired to the woods and forests to practice meditation in solitude.

Sometime after this experience Huisi met the master Huiwen and received instruction from him concerning meditation and its concomitant, the experience of enlightenment. Thereafter, he confined his practice to meditation. Tradition alleges that he attained enlightenment only at the point when, dispairing of ever realizing the goal of his practice, Huisi climbed to the top of the monastery wall to throw himself off. The resulting breakthrough he later termed fahua sanmei, or "Lotus samādhi."

A recurrent theme in his preaching is summarized in one of his biographies: "The source of enlightenment is not far away, and one's (Buddha) nature, like a sea, is not distant. Only direct your seeking inward upon yourself; do not get enlightenment from another." Huisi died peacefully in 577, at the age of sixty-two.

Some six extant works are attributed to Huisi: the Dasheng zhiguan famen (The Mahāyāna Teaching of Stilling and Insight; T. D. no. 1924); the Zhufa wucheng sanmei famen (The Teaching of Noncontentious Samādhi with Respect to All Phenomena; T. D. no. 1923); the Sui ciyi sanmei (The Samādhi Attained at Will; Zokuzōkyō 2.3); the Fahua jing anluo xingyi (The Cultivation of the Anluo Chapter of the Fahua jing; T. D. no. 1926), a work that treats the ethics of a Lotus devotee in an era of the decline of the Dharma, as outlined in the fourteenth chapter of the Lotus; the Shou pusa jiehyi (The Ritual for Receiving the Bodhisattva Precepts; Zokuzōkyō 2.10); and the Nanyue sidashi lishi yuanwen (The Vows of Master Si of Nanyue; T. D. no. 1933). The authenticity of some of these works remains open to scholarly investigation. Attributions, in later catalogs, of some four other inextant works to Huisi may, to judge from the titles of these works, represent a retrospective attempt to ascribe many of the major teachings of Zhiyi to his master's inspiration.


Zhiyi, the de-facto founder of the Tiantai tradition, was born in Jingzhou (present-day Hunan Province) in 538. At the age of seventeen he entered the monastic life under the direction of the master Fazhu of the guoyuan Si in Xiangzhou; after his ordination he began the study of the Vinaya (rules of monastic discipline) with Huikuang, reading at the same time various Mahāyāna texts. Sometime later Zhiyi made a pilgrimage to Mount Taixian, where he went into retreat, reciting the "three Lotus scriptures," the Fahua jing, the Wuliang yi jing, and the Puxianguan jing. He continued his chanting for twenty days, at which time he fully understood the meaning of these texts.

In 560 Zhiyi journeyed to Mount Dasu, where he met Huisi, who was now destined to become his chief instructor. Huisi instructed him in devotions centered around the figure of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Chin., Puhxian) and in the Anluo practices, practices taught in the fourteenth chapter (Anluoxing pin ) of the Fahua jing. Following Zhiyi's enlightenment experience Huisi named him his Dharma heir and successor. Thereafter, Zhiyi took up residence in the Waguan Si in Jinling (Nanking), where he was to stay for eight years. During this period he lectured on the Lotus and the Da zhidu lun and taught a path of gradual meditative cultivation to his disciples. These teachings formed the basis for his Fajie ziti chumen (T. D. no. 1925). In 575 he moved to Mount Tiantai, a mountain that was to remain his major headquarters for the rest of his life and from which the tradition derives its name. In 577 Zhiyi and his followers were, by imperial edict, given the tax levies from Shifeng Prefecture (xian), and two clans were indentured to him to provide his community with fuel and water. Sometime in this period Zhiyi lectured on the Jingming jing (the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra ) and the Jinguangming jing (a Prajñāpāramitā text); both of these lectures served as the basis for later written works.

In 585 Zhiyi lectured before the last emperor of the Chen dynasty on the Da zhidu lun. While in the Chen capital (Jinling) he also lectured on the Renwang panruo jing (Sutra of the Benevolent Kings; T. D. no. 246) and admonished the emperor against state intervention in the affairs of the sagha. In 587 Zhiyi gave a series of lectures on the Fahua jing in the Guangze Si; these lectures became the basis for his Miaofa lianhua jing wenju (Sentences and Phrases of the Lotus; T. D. no. 1718). With the establishment of the Sui dynasty (589618) and the reunification of China after some three and a half centuries, the area around the two regions of Xiangzhou and Xingzhou was pacified and Zhiyi was able to make a pilgrimage to Mount Lu, a site famous in the history of Pure Land Buddhism. In 591 he administered the bodhisattva precepts to the later-to-be second Sui emperor, Prince Guang, in Yangzhou.

In 593 Zhiyi lectured on the Fahua jing at the Yuchuan Si, a monastery in Dangyang Prefecture whose construction he had overseen. The transcription of these lectures by Zhiyi's disciple and amanuensis, Guanding, served as the basis of the Miaofa lianhua jing xuanyi (The Profound Principles of the Lotus; T. D. no. 1716). The following year Zhiyi lectured on the practice of meditation; these lectures, again transcribed by Guanding, formed the basis for the last of his three major works, the Mohe zhiguan. In 595, once more at the request of the prince, Zhiyi found himself in the capital, Jinling, where he composed a commentary on the Vimalakīrti Sūtra on behalf of his most eminent patron. Soon thereafter, however, inspired by a premonition of impending death, he returned to Tiantai to impart his final teachings to his disciples. These were transcribed under the title Guanxin lun (On Visualizing the Mind; T. D. no. 1920). Zhiyi died in the eleventh month of 597.

Although Zhiyi considered himself part of a spiritual lineage that derived ultimately from Nāgārjuna and that had been transmitted through Huiwen and Huisi, the doctrines that have in East Asia been most typically associated with (early) Tiantai are the products of his own skill as a teacher and exegete. His biographies record that Zhiyi was responsible for the construction of some thirty-five monasteries, had fifteen copies of the Tripiaka copied and thousands of Buddha images cast, ordained over a thousand monks, some thirty-two of whom became advanced students under his personal guidance, and produced a large number of works on doctrine and meditation. (Forty-six are attributed to him, but a number are clearly later forgeries.)

Also important were the links he established with the Sui ruling house, who saw in Zhiyi's synthesis of diverse strands of the Buddhist tradition a compelling analogue to their own political unification of the empire. Unfortunately, the close relationship enjoyed by Zhiyi with the Sui rulers, and the lavish patronage he and his community received at their hands, were responsible for the school's dramatic loss of prestige in the aftermath of the fall of the Sui in 518. The new dynasty, the Tang, wishing to disassociate itself from Sui policies, naturally eshewed the symbols of religious legitimacy treasured by its predecessor.

Doctrine and Practice

The Tiantai tradition is characterized by the use of an exegetical method developed by Zhiyi and employed by him in his works; all subsequent Tiantai writers employed this same method. Tiantai doctrine is founded upon a particular reading of the Lotus Sutra, to which is imported a wide variety of teachings associated with other texts and traditions and an organizational principle whereby the disparate texts and teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism are seen in the context of an overarjing scheme of revelation and levels of textual interpretation. Although the systematization of this insight into the so-called Five Periods and Eight Teachings doctrine is probably the work of a later hand, the basic inspiration for the system clearly derives from Zhiyi. Three works in particular, all by Zhiyi, are recognized by the tradition as constituting the core and epitome of its teachings.

Miaofa lianhua jing wenzhu

The first of these, the Miaofa lianhua jing wenzhu (Fahua wenzhu, for short), or Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra, is based on Zhiyi's lectures at the Guangze Si in 587 on the meaning of key words and phrases in the Lotus Sutra. Guanding's compilation and redaction of notes taken at this lecture series were completed in 629.

The Wenzhu employs four types of explanation (sishi ) in commenting on the text:

  1. The explanation according to conditions (yinyuan shi ), in which the author analyzes the Buddha and his audience and the four "benefits" (siddhānta s) produced by this sūtra (it leads to joy and happiness, it generates roots of good, it destroys evil, and it enables the devotee to enter into an understanding of the Absolute).
  2. The explanation in which this and all other sūtra s are analyzed on the basis of the place they occupy in the teachings of the Buddha over his entire lifetime (yuejiao shi ). The standards for evaluating any teaching are two: whether is it "partial" or "perfect" (i. e., whether it is fully expressive of the insights of the Buddha or only partially so), Hīnayāna or Mahāyāna; and where it is included in the scheme of the Five Periods and the Eight Teachings.
  3. The explanation based on whether the teachings in question constitute the "basic" or "peripheral" message of the sūtra (benji shi ).
  4. The explanation based on the type of meditational practice taught in the sūtra (guanxin shi ).

These four exegetical methods are employed on the Lotus Sutra as a whole, and then on each chapter's title and on selected passages from each chapter. The first three explanations are theoretical, the last practical.

Zhiyi divided the contents of the Lotus Sutra into three parts, two parts, and a combination of the two. He divided the whole of the scripture into three parts: an introduction (chapter 1), the core teachings (chapter 2 to the first half of chapter 17), and a postscript (the last half of chapter 17 to the end of the work, chapter 28). He also divided the scripture into two parts (based on the benji shi method, mentioned above): The first fourteen chapters constitute the fictive or provisional teachings; the second fourteen chapters constitute the basic or absolute level of teaching. Here again, a tripartite analysis is employed against each section. The fictive or provisional teachings are composed of an introduction (chapter 1), a core teaching (chapters 2 to 6), and a postscript (chapters 7 to 14). The basic or absolute teachings are similarly divided into the introduction (the first half of chapter 15), the core teaching (latter half of chapter 15 to the first half of chapter 17), and the postscript (latter half of chapter 17 to the end of the text).

For Zhiyi, the teachings of the first half of the Lotus (the first fourteen chapters) center around the promise of salvation for all beings. In this section, the Buddha Śākyamuni reveals that the traditionally articulated soteriological paths (yāna s)that of the śrāvaka, or "Hīnayāna" devotee, consisting of the teaching and practice of the Four Noble Truths; the pratyekabuddha, or self-enlightened Buddha, epitomized by the teaching of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda ); and the bodhisattva, or Mahāyāna practitioner, characterized by the practice of the "perfections" (pāramitā s)are only apparently distinct religious paths. In fact, the end of each is nothing less than full and complete Buddhahood; there are not three vehicles to salvation, only one, the ekabuddhayāna, or "One Vehicle of the Buddha." This section of the sūtra also preaches, according to Zhiyi, that phenomenal existence is identical with the absolute, and that all dharma s have real and tangible characteristics.

The second half of the sūtra proclaims, however, that Śākyamuni's very appearance in the world is a mere fiction, a device employed, so says Zhiyi, by the one, eternal Buddha to aid in the salvation of all beings. Under this interpretation, the historical Buddha, indeed all Buddhas of the ten directions, are nothing more than emanations of this one Buddha, and their earthly careersthe paradigmatic sequence of birth, renunciation of family life, cultivation of ascetic practices, even the enlightenment and final nirvāa (parinirvāa )mere elements in a great soteriological drama designed to reveal the Dharma to sentient beings. For this reason, Zhiyi termed the teachings of the first half of the text provisional; only the latter half constitutes the full revelation of absolute truth.

All subsequent Tiantai writings having the words wenzhu in their titles employ the fourfold exegetical method described here.

Miaofa lianhua jing xuanyi

The second of the major works of Zhiyi, the Miaofa lianhua jing xuanyi, is primarily an exegesis of the five words in the title of the sūtra from five points of view. The exegetical method of this commentary is thus called the "five types of profound principles" (wuzhong xuanyi ). These five exegetical categories characterize all subsequent Tiantai writings having the term xuanyi in their titles and were used to analyze all Buddhist scripture, not merely the Lotus. The first explains the name of the sūtra (shiming ); the second is a detailed analysis of its philosophy, a philosophy that may not be necessarily expressed in the text itself (the bienti explanation); the third clarifies important points expressed in the body of the text (the mingzong explanation); the fourth discusses how the sūtra expects persons to act or to think with respect to the teaching presented therein (the lunyong explanation); and the fifth evaluates the sūtra and ranks it in relationship to the Absolute teachings presented in the Lotus (the panjiao explanation). Zhiyi continues with an explanation of the meditational practice taught in the Lotus, how the devotee should visualize that the different characteristics of all dharma s are all in one's own mind and that this mind actually (not merely potentially) possesses all dharma s.

Zhiyi's specific explanation of the meaning of the word fa (dharma ) derives from the explanation that he learned from his master Huisi: The word fa includes the aspect of mind, the Buddha, and sentient beings. All these three are at once provisional and absolute, a truth that is realized when the devotee sees that he or she and all other sentient beings possess the "ten suchnesses" (shi rushi ) and the "ten dharma dhatus," or realms of rebirth (shi fajie ). Each realm possesses each of the ten suchnesses for a total of one thousand characteristics, and each one of these one thousand characteristics are empty (kong ), provisionally existent (jia ), and both empty and existent at the same time (zhong). This threefold characterization is referred to as the "three wisdoms."

In the last part of the commentary, Zhiyi refutes various theories of early Huayan and Weishi (Yogācāra) masters. He also denies the equality, maintained by many, of the Lotus Sutra and the Huayan jing and refutes the theories of several early Lotus thinkers.

Mohe zhiguan

The last of the major works of Zhiyi is the Mohe zhiguan. Unlike the former two works, which deal primarily with theory and only peripherally with meditation, this work constitutes the core of Tiantai teachings concerning practice. The text of the Zhiguan was composed by Zhiyi, but the introduction to the work was written by Guanding. In it, Guanding speaks of the lineage of Tiantai meditational practice and teaching. He speaks of two lineages: The first is taken from the Fu fazang jing and posits a line of transmission that begins with the Buddha Śākyamuni and may be traced to the Indian monk Siha. This lineage also includes Nāgārjuna. Because it begins with the "golden mouthed" words of the Buddha it is called the "golden mouth lineage." The second lineage is called the "lineage of contemporary masters"; it traces its origin from Nāgārjuna, through Huiwen to Huisi, to Zhiyi.

The Five Periods and the Eight Teachings

One of the most distinctive features of Tiantai thought was its classification of the whole of Śākyamuni's teachings, that is, the whole of Buddhism, into five periods, during which the Buddha is said to have taught different doctrines to different classes of persons. These teachings are further subdivided on the basis of their contents.

The "five periods" (wushi) are (1) the Huayan (Skt., Avatamsaka) period, (2) the period of the Ehan, or Agamas, also called the Luyuan (Skt., Mgadāva, "Deer Park") period, (3) the Fangdeng (Skt., Vaipulya) period, (4) the Boruo (Skt., Prajñāpāramitā) period; and (5) the Fahua (Skt., Sad dharma puarīka) or Niepan (Skt., Nirvāa) period. These take their names, as is obvious, from specific scriptures or scriptural collections preached during these eras.

The "eight teachings" (bajiao ) are two sets of four teachings, so divided on the basis of the method and the type or content of the teaching employed. The first four, the huayi, or methods of conversion, are (1) the Sudden Teaching (dunjiao ), (2) the Gradual Teachings (jianjiao ), (3) the Secret Teachings (bimi jiao ), (4) the Indeterminate Teachings (buding jiao ). The huafa teachings, that is, the teachings classified on the basis of their contents, are (1) the Piaka Teachings (zangjia o), (2) the Common Teachings (tungjia o), (3) the Separate Teachings (biejiao ), and (4) the Perfect Teachings (yuanjiao ).

When the Buddha Śākyamuni was first enlightened he is reputed to have sat silently for twenty-one days, during which time various emanations from his body are said to have taught several sermons that were later compiled into one work, the Huayan jing (Avatasaka Sūtra ). During this twenty-one-day period the Buddha presented the teachings to advanced bodhisattva s, the only beings capable of comprehending their lofty contents.

After this twenty-one-day period, the Buddha then spent the next twelve years preaching the Hīnayāna teachings to an audience that was incapable of understanding the "sudden" presentation of the Mahāyāna teachings of the Huayan jing. These Hīnayāna teachings, also called the gamas (known in Pali as the Nikāyas), were first preached in the Deer Park (Mgadāva) in the town of Sārnāth, a suburb of Banaras, and were intended as an initial step in preparing his listeners for more advanced (i. e., Mahāyāna) teachings. These Hīnayāna discourses were thus deemed expedient (upāya ) teachings designed to lead the Buddha's hearers eventually to greater understanding of the ultimate or absolute level of the Truth.

Following this, the Buddha then preached for eight years to those followers who had attained the fruit of the Hīnayāna teachings, that is, to arhat s, in order to bring them to the realization that arhatship does not represent the acme of the religious career. Thus, the Buddha preached a large number of Mahāyāna sermonsrepresented by such scriptures as the Weimo jing (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa ), the Shengman jing (Śrīmālādevī Sūtra ), the Jinguang ming jing (Suvaraprabhāsa Sūtra )which were taught, in the words of Zhiyi, "to deprecate the partial and to praise the perfect; to demolish the Hīnayāna, and to praise the Mahāyāna," so that the followers would "be ashamed of the Hīnayāna and long for the Mahāyāna."

Next, the Buddha taught the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) teaching of the emptiness of all dharma s. This twenty-two year period was followed by the presentation, for the first time since the teachings of the Huayan jing, of the absolute truth: For the next eight years the Buddha taught the Lotus Sutra. As the Buddha was about to die, his spent his last day and night preaching the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra, the Niepan jing. In this teaching he emphasized that all beings have the Buddha nature, or the potential to become fully enlightened Buddhas, thus converting those who had remained unswayed by the preaching of the Lotus Sutra. In order to remove the delusions of those "of weak capacities among later generations" who would come to have the "false view of extinction and annihilation," he stressed the importance of the Vinaya and its precepts for the moral life, and taught the eternal existence of the Buddha. Because the message and the approximate time period of the preaching of the Lotus Sutra and the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra were the same, these two scriptures were said to make up a single era.

Zhiyi did not assign any specific number of years to each of these periods; these were first added to this scheme in the early thirteenth century by the scholar-monk Yuansui in his Sijiaoyi beishi (Zokuzōkyō 2.7.1). This identification with a specific number of years for each period became standard in Tiantai circles, although it was criticized by Zhixu (in his Jiaoguan kangzong ), the Japanese master Shōshin (in the Hokkegengi shiki ), and by the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japanese masters Fujaku and Hotan.

Of the four methods of conversion, the Sudden Teaching is identified with the Huayan period and the Gradual Teachings with the second, third, and fourth periods. The Secret Teachings are those in which one group of persons is taught the Sudden Teaching and another group is taught a Gradual Teaching, yet neither group realizes that the other has received a different presentation of the teachings. Hence, they are termed "secret [and indeterminate]." But should these two groups realize that each is receiving a different teaching and a different type of spiritual benefit, then the teachings are termed the "[revealed] indeterminate teachings." No specific scriptures are assigned to these last two categories.

The classification of the teachings according to their contents begins with the Piaka Teachings, a synonym for the Hīnayāna. In this teaching the Four Noble Truths are taught differently for the śrāvaka s, prateyekabuddha s, and bodhisattva s. Then the Four Truths are taught with respect to emptiness and nonarising to these three categories of followers equally. This is termed the Common Teaching. When an unlimited number of Four Truths are taught only to Mahāyāna bodhisattva s, this teaching is coupled with a presentation of the three insights, emptiness (gu ), provisional existence (jia ), and the middle, or reconciliation of these two (zhong ), in a sequential manner. This is the Separate Teaching, as each defilement is cut off separately. When the three insights are taught, cultivated, and realized simultaneously, and when the three defilements are cut off all at once, this is the Perfect Teaching.

The teaching of the Huayan period is the Perfect Teaching, but not exclusively so; it also contains traces of the Separate Teaching. The Deer Park period is devoted exclusively to the Piaka Teaching. The third period, the miscellaneous Mahāyāna or Vaipulya period, contains elements of all four teachings, and the fourth period teaches the Perfect Teaching but with strong traces of both the Common and Separate Teachings. In the fifth period, the Lotus Sutra is purely the Perfect Teaching, with no admixture of any of the other teachings, whereas the Mahāparinirvāa Sūtra constitutes a subsidiary teaching, and includes all of the four types of teachings.


According to Guanding, Zhiyi's teaching of meditation can be traced to the master Huisi, and comprehends "three types of stilling and insight meditation" (sanzhong zhiguan ): the gradual attainment of stilling and insight (taught in full in Zhiyi's Shichan poluomi ziti famen, T. D. no. 1916), the indeterminate attainment of stilling and insight (represented by his Liumiao famen, T. D. no. 1917), and the perfect and sudden attainment of stilling and insight (represented by the Mohe zhiguan ).

The Mohe zhiguan is divided into ten major sections; sections one and seven are further subdivided into important subdivisions. Section one is entitled Dayi, ("great teaching") and is subdivided into (1) generating the bodhicitta (in which ten types of good and bad bodhicitta are enumerated); (2) cultivating the great practice, in which four types of samādhi are enumerated: the "samadhi of perpetual walking," the "samadhi of perpetual sitting," the "samadhi of half-walking and half-sitting" (which, coupled with the perpetual recitation of the Nembutsu, became important in Japanese Tendai and Pure Land practice), and the "samadhi of neither walking nor sitting"; (3) experiencing the great result (i. e., the sabhogakāya ); (4) rending asunder the great snare of doubts, in which the author refutes doubts and objections based on other writings and teachings; and (5) returning to the great source, nirvāa.

Section two discusses the name (Stilling and Insight ) of the text. Section three discusses its characteristics; section four states that this practice embraces all dharma s; section five discusses whether this practice is partial or perfect; and section six gives some twenty-five external and internal preparations for the practice of meditation. Section seven is entitled "The Real Practice" and is subdivided into ten subdivisions. According to section seven, on the first of the devotee's intensive meditations he or she should meditate on "the three thousand dharma s in one instant of mind" (yinian sanqian ), a practice that has become one of the hallmarks of Tiantai meditation. This teaching states that the devotee's five skandhas presently contain all of the dharma s ("the three thousand dharma s") of existence. These three thousand are the ten realms of rebirth (hell, preta s, animals, asura s, humans, deva s, śrāvaka s, pratyekabuddha s, bodhisattva s, and Buddhas) multiplied by the ten "suchnesses," or real, tangible characteristics (nature, external characteristics, body, power, creative ability, causes, conditions, results, recompenses, and the totality of the Absolute), in turn multiplied by the three realms (the realm of sentient beings, their physical lands, and their five skandha s).

The remaining portions of section seven elucidate meditational practices designed to remove the influences (vāsanā s) of one's past karman. At this point the Mohe zhiguan comes to an abrupt end; that is, it ends at the seventh subdivision of section seven; the remaining sections (eight to ten) are missing, although the names of their titles are known from the introduction to the work: Section eight is concerned with karmic results, section nine with the teachings, and section ten with the general purport. There are two traditional reasons given for this abrupt ending to the text: Either Zhiyi was asked to speak for a certain period of time and his time ran out, or he was beginning to speak of states of attainment that could not be expressed in words. That is to say, if the devotee progressed as far as was already described in the text, the devotee would automatically know the ending of the book.

Introductory manuals

Even though the major writings of the Tiantai tradition are large, voluminous works, early on it became obvious to Zhiyi that his thought would be best presented in shorter epitomes of his teachings. One of the distinctive features of the Tiantai tradition is that it produced a number of one-volume works that present the salient points of Tiantai doctrine in a brief, easy to remember form.

One of the first of these works was Guanding's Tiantai bajiao dayi (The Major Points of the Eight Teachings of the Tiantai; T. D. no. 1930). Another popular one volume introduction to Tiantai thought is the Tiantai sijiaoyi (Kor., Chŏndee sagyŏngui; T. D. no. 1931) by the Korean monk Chegwan (Chin., Tiguan). This text is divided into two sections: The first describes the "five periods" (in the teaching career of the Buddha) and the "four teachings" (four types of doctrine preached by Śākyamuni); the second describes the meditational practice of the lineage. With this arrangement the author appears to separate the doctrinal from the practice aspect of the teaching, a point upon which he was criticized by later writers (e.g., Zhihxü).

Another short, one-volume introductory work is the Jiaoguan kangzong (T. D. no. 1939) by the Ming dynasty master Zhixu (15991655). In this work Zhixu attempts to present the orthodox Tiantai teachings without any admixture of his own interpretations, yet his definition of orthodox Tiantai are the thoughts of the shanjia masters of the Song dynasty. This work was written along the lines of Chegwan's Sagyŏngui, but whereas Chegwan presents the meditational practices of the various Four Teachings apart from their doctrines, Zhixu stresses the close interrelation between teaching and practice (meditation) in each of the Four Teachings.

Another short introductory work by Zhixu that is still widely read in both China and Japan is the Fahua lunguan (A Synopsis of the Lotus Sutra; Zokuzōkyō 50). In this work Zhixu adopted Zhiyi's exegetical method and selected passages from Zhiyi's Fahua xuanyi and Fahua wenju to illustrate the purport of the sūtra and its title. He also quotes from these two works to illustrate the teaching of each of the twenty-eight chapters of the Lotus Sutra.

Tiantai historiographical works

The Tiantai contribution to Chinese Buddhism is not confined to doctrinal works alone. Two major church histories, the Fozu tongji (Comprehensive Record of the Buddha and the Patriarchs; T. D. no. 2035) and the Shimen chengtong (Zokuzokyo 2.3.5), bear the imprint of Tiantai thought.

The former, composed in 1269 by Zhipan, is a general history of Buddhism in both India and China rendered from the Tiantai point of view. In it are preserved biographies of the Buddha and major patriarchal figures, chronologies of Chinese and Indian church history, histories of rival orders, Tiantai cosmology, accounts of church-state relations, miraculous tales, and the texts of important steles. The work contains much material pertaining to the shanjiashanwai debates of the Northern Song period, and is altogether notable for the attention it accords the Pure Land tradition in China, an account of which occupies a full three volumes.

The latter work, the Shimen chengtong, is in its present form the work of the Southern Sung master Zongqian, who rewrote the text from an earlier history, the Zongyuan lu. It is modeled after secular Chinese historical writings. In its five sections are chronicles of the Buddha and major Indian figures; sectarian lineages; monographs treating such topics as popular customs, social welfare, monastery administration, and so forth; biographies of lesser Tiantai masters; and records of other traditions.

Later Masters

Although Zhiyi represents the lynchpin of Chinese Tiantai, his work was carried on and developed by a succession of later masters whose efforts ensured that Tiantai remained one of the most influential and doctrinally sophisticated traditions of East Asian Buddhism.


Zhiyi's successor as abbot and leader of the Tiantai lineage was Guanding (561632). A native of Zhangan (Zhekyiang Province), Guanding entered the monastic life at the age of six, particularly distinguishing himself in literary studies. He was fully ordained at the age of nineteen. After the death of his ordination master Guanding left the local monastery and went to the Xiuchan Si (later the chief monastery of the Tiantai tradition) on Mount Tiantai, where he met Zhiyi for the first time. It was here that he began his study of the Tiantai meditational practices and doctrinal synthesis established by Zhiyi.

In 583 Guanding accompanied Zhiyi to the Guangze Si in Jinling; here he studied Zhiyi's meditational teachings and was certified as Zhiyi's successor and permanent attendant. In 614 Guanding completed his two-volume commentary on the Mahāyāna-parinirvāa Sūtra, his Daniepan jing xuanyi, and the thirty-three volume comentary on this same scriptures, his Daniepan jing shu. With the completion of these works the Tiantai tradition now had complete commentaries on the two most important scriptures in their lineage, the Lotus Sutra and the Mahāyāna-parinirvāa Sūtra, whose doctrines, in the view of Zhiyi and Guanding, make up the "perfect" or "round" teaching (yuanjiao). Guanding's biographer states that, owing to the civil disorder attendent upon the collapse of the Sui, the five years it took him to complete his commentaries were ones of extreme privation.

In his later years Guanding lived in the city of Kuaiji, where he lectured on the Lotus Sutra. His biography records that contemporary popular rhyme said that he "surpassed Falang, Huiji, Fayun and Sengyin," the ranking scholar-monks of his day. It was through the efforts of Guanding that the monastery on Mount Tiantai began again to enjoy imperial patronage; Guanding was also responsible for the transcription and propagation of the major and minor works of Zhiyi, thus ensuring their survival for later generations.

In addition to the works mentioned above, Guanding's extant corpus includes the Guanxin lun shu, a commentary on Zhiyi's Guanxin lun; the Sui Tiantai Dashi biezhuan, a one-volume biography of Zhiyi and the primary source for existing knowledge of his life and works; and the Guoqing bailu.


Zhanran, counted as the ninth Tiantai patriarch, was born in 711 in Jingxi (present-day Giangsu Province) to a family that had for generations produced Confucian scholars and officials. His biography states that in his youth he excelled in scholarship; at the age of sixteen he developed an interest in Buddhism and began to search out teachers of the faith. His first recorded teacher was Fangyan, who taught him the elements of zhiguan meditation. At the age of seventeen he met Xuanlang (later to be counted as the eighth patriarch of the Tiantai tradition), who, it is said, immediately recognized the youth's intelligence and taught him both the doctrines and the meditation techniques of the Tiantai tradition.

For the next twenty years Zhanran, still a layman, devoted himself to the study of Tiantai doctrines, finally becoming ordained in 748. After his ordination, Zhanran journeyed to Kuaiji where he studied the monastic discipline with the Vinaya master Tanyi (Kor., Tamil). Sometime thereafter Zhanran gave a series of lectures on the Mohe zhiguan in the Kaiyuan Si in Wujun. Following the death of Xuanlang in 754, Zhanran took upon himself the task of propagating the Tiantai doctrines. This he did by writing commentaries to the three major works of Zhiyi, polemics against the Huayan, Yogācāra, and Chan systems, and short manuals of meditational instruction. His voluminous writings earned him the informal title of jizhu, the Master of Commentaries. Zhanran died in 782, and was buried next to the remains of Zhiyi. For his role in propagating Tiantai doctrines at a time of their eclipse Zhanran has been termed "the patriarchal restorer of the Tiantai tradition" (Tiantai zhongxing zu ). He had some thirty-nine disciples, including Daosui and Xingman, as well as the academician Liang Xiao.

Zhanran's fame rests on his literary works. These include commentaries on Zhiyi's three major works: Fahua wenju ji (T. D. no. 1719), Fahua xuanyi shiqian (T. D. no. 1717), and the Zhiguan fuxing zhuanhongjueh (T. D. no. 1912). In addition to these, Zhanran also reedited the Niepan shu and composed three commentaries on the Weimo jing (Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra ), a selection of significant passages from the Mohe zhiguan (his Zhiguan wenju ), works on Huayan (his Huayan gumu ), on selected topics in Tiantai doctrine (Jingang bi lun and Shibuer men, important works in the subsequent Song-dynasty shanjiashanwai debates), and a number of introductory manuals of meditation.


Zhili, later to be counted as the seventeenth patriarch of the Tiantai tradition, was born in 960 in Siming (Chegiang Province). At the age of six, he lost his mother, and his father sent him to live in a local monastery. It was there, at the age of fourteen, that he received full ordination. At nineteen he began his study of Tiantai doctrine with Yitong (Kor., Ǔitŏng). After Zhili had been with Yitong for one month the master had him lecture on the Xinjing (the Prajñāpāramitāhdaya Sūtra ), and after a period of three years Zhili was giving all of his master's lectures. Yitong died in 988; in 991 Zhili took up residence in the Qianfu Si, where he stayed for four years, lecturing on Tiantai doctrines and writings. As his students grew in number the accommodations of the Qianfu Si proved to be too small, so in 995 he moved to the Baoen Yuan; in the following year the abbot of the Baoen Yuan resigned his office and Zhili was able to turn the monastery into a Tiantai teaching center.

Zhili's entire life was devoted to religious instruction. In addition to a voluminous corpus of writings, twenty-three titles by one account, and his lectures on the major Tiantai works and commentaries, he also pursued a rich liturgical and meditative career. He was responsible for the construction of hundreds of monasteries, the mass printing of Tiantai literature, the casting of devotional images, and the inauguration of an "Assembly for the Recitation of the Name of the Buddha and for Giving the Precepts" (nianfo shijie hui ), convened annually on the fifteenth day of the second month. But Zhili is perhaps best known for his role in the so-called shanjiashanwai debates, the seminal Tiantai dispute of the Northern Song period (9601127).

The shanjia ("mountain school," the "orthodox" position) centered around Zhili and his followers; the shanwai ("outside the mountain," i. e., non-orthodox) position centered around the monks Qingzhao and Jiyuan. The dispute turned on whether the correct object of meditation should be the "mind as it currently is," defiled and ignorant, or the "true mind," in which case the devotee was to visualize a deity or some other transcendental object in order that the mind might take on the feature of the object of meditation. In the course of the debate the authenticity of various works popularly attributed to Zhiyi and Zhanran was also disputed, so that what came to be at issue was the very question as to which teachings would be recognized as "orthodox" Tiantai doctrine. The debate was joined initially in a series of correspondence between Zhili and his shanwai counterparts Wuen, Qingzhao, and Jiyuan. Many of these documents are preserved in Zhili's collected works, the Siming zunzhe jiaoxing lu (T. D. no. 1937). In the course of this correspondence Zhili made a case for the everyday mind, replete with defilements as it is, as the proper object of meditation, a point around which a variety of notions concerning the nature of the Absolute also crystallized.

By the time of his death in 1028 Zhili had gathered around him a large number of students, more than thirty of whom were his close disciples. Zhili also personally ordained over seventy monks.


The scholar-monk Zhixu was born in 1599 in the Suzhou district of present-day Giangsu Province. In his youth he was an ardent student of the Confucian classics. Like many of the Confucian scholars of his day, he had an intense dislike for Buddhism and even composed an essay purporting to refute Buddhist doctrine. But at the age of sixteen he chanced to read the Zizhilu and the Zhushuang suibi of the master Yunqi Zhuhong (15351615) and was converted to Buddhism. At nineteen he underwent an enlightenment experience while reading the Lunyu (Analects) of Confucius; as his biographer put it, "he was enlightened to the mind (xinfa ) of Confucius and Yanzi."

In 1638 Zhixu resolved to compose a commentary on the Fanwan jing (T. D. no. 1815), the standard Chinese Mahāyāna text treating the precepts. Undecided as to which doctrinal point of view he should adopt in his explanation of the text, he made four tokens in order to practice a rite of divination in front of a Buddha image. On these tokens he wrote "the Huayan tradition," "the Tiantai tradition," "the Weishi tradition," and "my own tradition," respectively, signifying by this last that he would develop his own understanding of the Buddha's teachings. In this rite, the token marked with the Tiantai tradition came to the fore, and from this time onward he composed all of his textual commentaries based on Tiantai principles.

In the summer of 1655 Zhixu fell ill, and on this occasion compiled the Jingtu shiyao (Ten Essential Works on the Pure Land), an anthology of ten essays dealing with the Pure Land doctrines. At the end of summer his illness abated and he was then able to complete his magnum opus, the forty-four-volume Yuezang zhijin and the five-volume Fahai guanlan. Later that year his illness returned, whereupon he established a Pure Land religious sodality and composed a set of vows for the group. He also composed some stanzas on seeking rebirth in the Pure Land (the Qiusheng jingtu jie ). Zhixu died in 1655 at the age of fifty-six; his popular posthumous title was Lingfeng Yuyi Dashi. His extant corpus of writings is voluminous: Some forty-six titles appear in various canonical collections and a number of texts still circulate independently. Zhixu's miscellaneous pieces were collected in 1678 by his disciple Chengshi into the ten-volume Ling feng Yuyi Dashi zonglun.

Zhixu's corpus includes several works concerned with the Lengyen jing, a scripture hitherto not commented upon from the Tiantai standpoint, and works dealing with the precepts, Buddhist logic, different aspects of Buddhist philosophy, many different scriptural commentaries, and interestingly enough, a Buddhist commentary on the Four Books (four Confucian classics) and a ten-volume Zhouyi chanjie (a Chan commentary on the Book of Changes ). Zhixu's largest work is the forty-four-volume Yuezang zhijin (Examining the Canon and Determining Its Depth). In this work he comments on every book included in the Buddhist canon, a task he began when he was twenty-nine years old.

Zhixu's text divides the whole of the canon into four parts: Sūtra, Vinaya, Śāstra, and Miscellaneous. The Sūtra section is divided into Mahāyāna Sūtras and Hīnayāna Sūtras, and the Mahāyāna Sūtras are divided on the basis on the Five Periods: Huayan, Vaipulya, Prajñā texts, Lotus-related texts, and Mahāparinirvāa texts. The Vaipulya scriptures are divided into Revealed Teachings and Secret Teachings, and the Secret Teachings are further divided into Secret (i. e., Tantric) scriptures and sādhana literature.

The Vinaya is here divided into Mahāyāna Vinaya texts and Hīnayāna Vinaya texts. The Sastra section is divided into Mahāyāna Śāstras and Hīnayāna Śāstras. Mahāyāna Śāstras are divided into three: Śāstras that comment on scriptures, sectarian Śāstras, and Śāstras that comment on other Śāstras: this section is also broken down on the basis of those composed in India and those composed in China. The Miscellaneous section is divided into works composed in India and those composed in China, and the section of those works composed in China is divided into fifteen subsections: repentence rituals, Pure Land, Tiantai, Chan, Huayan, Weishi, Tantrism, Vinaya, compilations, biographies, defense of the faith (i. e., polemical writings), glossaries, indices, "prefaces, hymns, poems, and songs," and last, a list of works that should be included in the canon. Zhixu comments on a total of 1,773 titles; for each work he gives the name of the translator or author, a summary of its contents, and the names of its chapters. Zhixu's classification of Buddhist scriptures was employed in the printing of the Dai-Nippon kōtei shukkoku daizōkyō; the influence of Zhixu's classification can also be found in the internal arrangement of the Taishō daizōkyō.

The Yuezang zhijin was not published during Zhixu's lifetime. It was first printed by 1669, and was reprinted in 1892 in Nanking. The first full Japanese printing came in 1783, and the work is now included in volume 3 of the Shōwa hōbō sōmokuroku, appended to the Taishō daizōkyō.

Zhixu also wrote a small work, the Fahai guanlan (Drops of Insight into the Sea of Dharma), treating his classification of the canon, which first circulated in a printed edition of 1654. In this work Zhixu divides Buddhist literature into five sections: the Vinaya, texts dealing with "teaching and insight" (Tiantai, Huayan, and Weishi), Chan, the Secret Teachings, and Pure Land works.

See Also

Buddhism, Schools of, articles on Chinese Buddhism and Mahāyāna Philosophical Schools of Buddhism; Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Exegesis and Hermeneutics; Buddhist Meditation; Buddhist Philosophy; Huayan; Nāgārjuna; Nirvāa; Tendaishu; Zhiyi.


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Chappell, David, and M. Ichishima. Tiantai Buddhism: An Outline of the Fourfold Teachings. Honolulu, 1983.

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Magnin, Paul. La vie et l'œuvre de Huisi: Les origines de la secte bouddhique chinoise du Tiantai. Paris, 1979.

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Sun Zhengxin. "Tiantai sixiangdi yuanyuan yu qi texhi." Xhongguo fojiaoshi lunji 2 (1956): 687713.

Weinstein, Stanley. "Imperial Patronage in the Formation of Tang Buddhism." In Perspectives on the Tang, edited by Arthur Wright and Denis Twitchett. New Haven, Conn., 1973.

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